The hidden impact of the steroid policy

By now, it’s no secret that Major League Baseball and the Players Association has beefed up baseball’s drug-testing program. On the heels of the BALCO scandal and calls from prominent politicians, baseball’s new policy is a major step in the right direction. While some people still believe that the policy is lacking in regards to the issue of amphetamine use, one facet of this new agreement should be highly effectively in curbing drug use in the clubhouse.

Under the terms of the old agreement — the one without any teeth — players received the proverbial slap on the wrist albeit an anonymous one. First-time offenders were given drug counseling. That’s it. No public shaming. No suspension. Just counseling. Repeat offenders were suspended, and a fifth-time offender would receive a year off from the game.

It’s been said to death over the past couple of years, but this was not a policy designed to lend faith to the institution. While the penalties were far from harsh, the policy called for just one test a year. The incentive to stop steroid use just wasn’t there; as long as a player was clean for that one test, it wouldn’t matter what they did the rest of the time. As the BALCO case exploded this winter, and Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds became the poster children for steroid use in the Major Leagues, MLB and the Players’ Association knew they had to come up with a new agreement, one with more bite. They unveiled this new deal on Thursday.

Under the terms of the latest agreement — which is to be in place until 2008, well past the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement — first-time offenders will receive a suspension of 10 games. Second-time offenders get a 30-day vacation, third-timers get 60 days, and four-time repeat users who get caught get one year. If a player gets nabbed five times, his fate is left in the hands of Commissioner Bud Selig, and it’s doubtful that Bud would be lenient.

Another big improvement in the new policy is the frequency of the tests. As ESPN reported on Thursday, “Players will be randomly selected for additional tests, with no limit on the number, and for the first time will be subject to random tests during the offseason.? This new stipulation gives the drug policy much more weight. Players will have to clean up their acts year-round because a test could come at any day or even on consecutive days. They will be at the whim of the randomly-generated number system MLB will have in place for the start of the season.

Finally, Major League Baseball has done something positive to address a problem with the game. They’ve put in place a drug-testing program that should discourage the players. In my opinion, this program will work because of the public stigma associated with steroid use. As Jayson Stark wrote yesterday: “The worst part of testing positive would be getting that label Steroid User stamped on your forehead. That’s a scarlet letter that these players would have to wear for the rest of their lives. If you don’t believe their reputations will be tainted forever, just ask Jason Giambi—if you can find him. For a high-profile player, that means not just a life sentence of boos and insults. It means having everything he ever accomplished thoroughly discredited.?

Now, under the new deal, players’ offenses will be a matter of public record from the first time on through their lifetime ban, if that’s the punishment Selig chooses. While some commentators feel that fans will react to what the players do on the field only, I think the fans will not forgive their favorite, or former favorite, players for cheating. Not only with the fans be unforgiving, but the suspensions will forever tarnish the reputation that player. Players who may have been idolized by youngsters will instead become the symbols of cheating in the game. Star players will become outcasts. In addition to an institutionalized punishment system, players will now be subjected to judgment by the media and the fans, and those two groups are among the first to point fingers and the last to forgive and forget.

Despite these strides, however, I still am a favor of a stricter testing policy. A few weeks ago, on my blog, I wrote about how taking steroids is just as bad, if not worse, than betting on baseball games. It’s illegal, and it’s cheating. Players should not get second chances, let alone a fourth or fifth chance. If a player gets caught once, his reputation is in tatters, but he still gets to play the game. If a player is caught betting on baseball, he gets suspended for life even if he’s betting for his own team to win. If the point of these rules is for baseball to set a moral example, than the penalty for first-time offenders in both cases should be the same. Those who cheat should not be allowed to play the game.

I will applaud Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association for addressing this problem in the span of about six weeks since the BALCO story broke. But this should not be the end of it. Baseball should seriously consider banning amphetamines, and those running the game and the union should be willing to accept harsher penalties for steroid users. Baseball is, after all, America’s game, and baseball should be teaching Americans that cheating gets you no where.

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